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Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Song Sparrow Photo

A rich, russet-and-gray bird with bold streaks down its white chest, the Song Sparrow is one of the most familiar North American sparrows. Don’t let the bewildering variety of regional differences this bird shows across North America deter you: it’s one of the first species you should suspect if you see a streaky sparrow in an open, shrubby, or wet area. If it perches on a low shrub, leans back, and sings a stuttering, clattering song, so much the better.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.7–6.7 in
12–17 cm
Wingspan
7.1–9.4 in
18–24 cm
Weight
0.4–1.9 oz
12–53 g
Relative Size
Slightly smaller than a Dark-eyed Junco; slightly larger than a Chipping Sparrow
Other Names
  • Bruant [Pinson] chanteur (French)
  • Gorrión cantor (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Song Sparrow is found throughout most of North America, but the birds of different areas can look surprisingly different. Song Sparrows of the Desert Southwest are pale, while those in the Pacific Northwest are dark and heavily streaked. Song Sparrows of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain are even darker, and they’re huge: one-third longer than the eastern birds, and weighing twice as much.
  • Some scientists think that Song Sparrows of wet, coastal areas have darker plumage as a defense against feather mites and other decay agents that thrive in humid climates. The darker plumage contains more of a pigment called melanin, which makes feathers tougher and harder to degrade than lighter, unpigmented feathers.
  • The range of the Song Sparrow is continuous from the Aleutians to the eastern United States. There’s also an isolated population that lives on the plateau of central Mexico, about 900 miles from the next closest population. These Song Sparrows have white throats and chests with black streaks.
  • Song Sparrows seem to have a clear idea of what makes a good nest. Field researchers working for many years on the same parcels of land have noticed that some choice spots – the base of a rose bush, or a particular hollow under a hummock of grass, for example – get used over and over again, even when entirely new birds take over the territory.
  • Despite the large differences in size and coloration across the Song Sparrow’s range, genetic divergence is low. High rates of immigration and emigration may keep populations genetically similar, while local selective conditions maintain the physical differences.
  • Like many other songbirds, the male Song Sparrow uses its song to attract mates as well as defend its territory. Laboratory studies have shown that the female Song Sparrow is attracted not just to the song itself, but to how well it reflects the ability of the male to learn. Males that used more learned components in their songs and that better matched their song tutors (the adult bird they learned their songs from) were preferred.
  • Song Sparrows often lay two or more clutches of eggs per breeding season. In exceptional circumstances, such as when resources are abundant or predation causes the loss of several clutches in a row, Song Sparrows have laid as many as seven clutches in a single breeding season, and have successfully reared up to four clutches.
  • The Song Sparrow, like most other North American breeding birds, uses increasing day length as a cue for when to come into breeding condition. But, other cues can be important too, such as local temperature and food abundance. A study found that male Song Sparrows from the coast of Washington state came into breeding condition two months earlier than Song Sparrows in the nearby mountains, where the daylight changes were the same, but temperatures were cooler and trees budded out two months later.
  • The oldest known Song Sparrow lived to be 11 years, 4 months old.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Song Sparrows are found in an enormous variety of open habitats, including tidal marshes, arctic grasslands, desert scrub, pinyon pine forests, aspen parklands, prairie shelterbelts, Pacific rain forest, chaparral, agricultural fields, overgrown pastures, freshwater marsh and lake edges, forest edges, and suburbs. You may also find Song Sparrows in deciduous or mixed woodlands.

Food


Insects

Song Sparrows eat mainly seeds and fruits, supplemented by many kinds of invertebrates in summer. Prey include weevils, leaf beetles, ground beetles, caterpillars, dragonflies, grasshoppers, midges, craneflies, spiders, snails, and earthworms. Plant foods include buckwheat, ragweed, clover, sunflower, wheat, rice, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, and wild cherries. Food types vary greatly depending on what’s common across the Song Sparrow’s extensive range. In British Columbia, Song Sparrows have even been observed picking at the droppings of Glaucous-winged Gulls.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-7 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.9 in
1.7–2.3 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.7 cm
Incubation Period
12–15 days
Nestling Period
9–12 days
Egg Description
Blue, blue-green, or gray-green spotted with brown, red-brown, or lilac.
Condition at Hatching
Naked with sparse blackish down, eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest, working mainly during the morning. It’s a simple, sturdy cup made of loose grasses, weeds, and bark on the outsides, then lined more tidily with grasses, rootlets, and animal hair. Construction takes about 4 days. The finished nest is 4-8 inches across (2-2.5 inches for the inside of the cup), and 2.5-4 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Song Sparrow pairs search for nest sites together. Nest sites are usually hidden in grasses or weeds, sometimes placed on the ground and occasionally as high as 15 feet; often near water. Not afraid of human habitation, Song Sparrows may nest close to houses, in flower beds.

Song Sparrow Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Song Sparrow Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Ground Forager

Song Sparrows walk or hop on the ground and flit or hop through branches, grass, and weeds. Song Sparrows stay low and forage secretively, but males come to exposed perches, including limbs of small trees, to sing. Courting birds fly together, fluttering their wings, with tails cocked up and legs dangling. Song Sparrows are primarily monogamous, but up to 20 percent of all Song Sparrows sire young with multiple mates each breeding season. In fall, juvenile Song Sparrows may band together in loose flocks around berry trees or water sources. Flight is direct and low on broad, rounded wings. Often flies only short distances between perches or to cover, characteristically pumping the tail downward as it flies.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Song Sparrows are widespread and common across most of the continent, but populations experienced a small decline from 1966 to 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 130 million with 88 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 42 percent in Canada, and 6 percent in Mexico. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Song Sparrows have vanished from two islands off Southern California, the result of more frequent fires and introduced hares altering the sparrows’ habitat. Wetland losses in the San Francisco Bay area have meant declining populations of a saltmarsh race of the Song Sparrow in that area.

Credits

Range Map Help

Song Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to medium-distance migrant. Birds from far Alaska and northern Canada migrate the farthest, flying to the southern United States and northern Mexico to winter. Birds from the northern U.S. may migrate, but typically don’t go as far south as the birds that started from farther north, a pattern called “leapfrog migration.”

Find This Bird

In spring and summer, Song Sparrows are one of the most conspicuous of all sparrows. Males sing often, perching around eye level on exposed branches. Also watch for Song Sparrows moving along wetland edges, ducking into dense, low vegetation after short bursts of their distinctive, tail-pumping flight.

Get Involved

What's That Sparrow? ID tips from the Great Backyard Bird Count

Keep track of the Song Sparrows at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Look for Song Sparrow nests and contribute valuable data about them through NestWatch

Researcher "Sings" for a Living to Decode Bird Songs (Cornell Chronicle)

You Might Also Like

Explore sounds and video of Song Sparrows from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library archive

Downloadable "Common Feeder Birds" poster from Project FeederWatch (PDF)

Song Sparrow from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1968)